About 99 percent of the world's nearly 500 million Buddhists live in the Asia-Pacific region [source: Pew]. But that doesn't mean people in the West don't know anything about Buddhism. Perhaps they've heard of it through certain celebrities who are adherents, or from a yoga teacher who spent three weeks in Nepal and keeps talking about "mindfulness." Maybe they've seen the Dalai Lama on TV. They may even think the chubby smiling statue at the local Chinese restaurant represents Buddha (hint: it doesn't).
A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center projected the number of Buddhists worldwide to increase to 511 million by 2030, but with the worldwide population increase, the percentage of people who are Buddhists will actually decline from 7.1 percent to 6.1 percent. In North America, the percentage of people who are Buddhists is expected to increase from 0.8 percent in 2010 to 1.2 percent by 2050. Buddhists make up a tiny fraction of America's religious landscape, registering at 1 percent or less of the population in every state except California (2 percent) and Hawaii (8 percent) in 2015 [source: Pew].
So, while people in the West may think they know what Buddhism is all about, chances are they don't. We've assembled 10 questions and answers to clear up the confusion about one of the world's oldest and most influential religious traditions. Let's get started with a quick bio of the Buddha himself.
Who Was the Buddha?
In Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, buddha means "awakened one." While Buddhist art and writings describe at least a dozen beings referred to as "buddhas," there is only one historical figure known as the Buddha, a spiritual teacher whose path to enlightenment forms the core of Buddhist thought and practice.
The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in 567 B.C.E. to a wealthy ruling family in the Himalayan foothills of modern-day Nepal. According to legendary biographies compiled centuries after his lifetime, Siddhartha was raised in princely luxury and isolated from the world beyond the palace gates. As a young man riding through town on his chariot, he encountered three things that jolted him out of his privileged detachment: a sick man, an old man and a corpse.
Newly aware to the existence of pain and death, he sought to understand the meaning of life. So Siddhartha renounced his riches, shaved his head and took up the life of a wandering holy man. Under different teachers, he learned how to enter deep states of meditation and to deny his body all but the most basic sustenance. At one point, it's said that he lived on one grain of rice a day and grew dangerously thin and weak [source: Fields].
Unsatisfied that meditation and acetic self-denial alone were the keys to liberation, Siddhartha accepted some food to regain his strength and sat beneath the Bodhi Tree to meditate on everything he had learned and experienced. After 40 consecutive days of meditation, he achieved the ultimate state of enlightenment — known as nirvana or freedom from suffering and desire — and became the Buddha.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha traveled throughout Northern India teaching the dharma, the essential truths about the nature of existence, the cause of suffering and how to overcome desire [source: The Buddhist Centre]. Although none of his discourses were recorded during his lifetime, his followers would spread the Buddha-dharma across India, China, Japan and eventually the world.
What Does Buddhism Teach?
In his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, the Buddha said, "I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering" [source: Sri Rahula].
The collective teachings of Buddhism are called the dharma and touch on every facet of human existence, from moral and ethical behavior to mental discipline to compassionate service. The ultimate goal of the dharma is to help individuals awaken to the true nature of reality, and to bring about changes in their behavior and thought patterns so as to break free of suffering.
As one Buddhist text explains, the essence of Buddhism can be boiled down to three things: "learning to do good; ceasing to do evil; purifying the heart" [source: The Buddhist Centre].
In his earliest teaching, Buddha laid out his vision of the true nature of reality, which became known as the Four Noble Truths:
- All existence is dukkha: Translated as suffering, pain or "unsatisfactoriness," dukkha is an inescapable truth of life.
- The cause of dukkha is craving: Suffering is not caused by outside forces or circumstances, but by our own thoughts and desires. The desire for pleasure, wealth, beauty, even existence itself only leads to suffering.
- The cessation of dukkha comes with the cessation of craving:By changing the way we think and respond to life's circumstances, we can detach from our desires and free ourselves from suffering. Nirvana is the fullest expression of that liberation from suffering.
- There is a path that leads from dukkha:Although it's up to each individual to find his or her own personal path to enlightenment, the Buddha provided guideposts along the journey. One set of guiding principles is called the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path is not meant to be a set of rules that, if broken, lead to divine punishment. Instead, it describes a way of living that is ethical, disciplined and wise, and provides the most direct route away from suffering and toward enlightenment.
There's no order to the Noble Eightfold Path, since all are dependent on one another [source: Sri Rahula]:
- Right understanding: understanding the true nature of existence according to the Four Noble Truths
- Right thought: thoughts that are free of selfish desire and hatred, and full of love, nonviolence and selfless detachment
- Right speech: speech that is free of lies, abusive language, backbiting and gossip
- Right action: includes admonitions against killing, stealing, illegitimate sexual intercourse and dishonest dealings
- Right livelihood: making a living through honest and honorable work that doesn't bring harm to others
- Right effort: to actively avoid "evil and unwholesome" states of mind and focus on cultivating more positive ways of thinking and being
- Right mindfulness: through breathing and meditation, becoming aware of the relationship between the body, sensations, feelings and thoughts
- Right concentration: learning to master thoughts and feelings through meditation to achieve perfect stillness of the mind and detachment from the body
This brief summary barely scratches the surface of the dharma. The Buddha spent his life teaching the Noble Eightfold Path in different ways to different people, and those teachings are recorded in Buddhist scriptures like the Pali Canon and countless writings attributed to the Buddha's first followers and spiritual giants throughout the ages. Understanding the core teachings of Buddhism takes a lifetime, or several lifetimes.
Is Buddhism a Philosophy or a Religion?
Viewed with Western eyes, Buddhism looks much more like a philosophy than a religion. There is no faith in a higher power, no liturgical prayer and no weekly worship services. Reading its teachings, Buddhism sounds like a spiritually focused, self-help philosophy. But in practice, Buddhism shares many of the same mystical and transcendent traits as all of the world's great religions.
Buddhism is undoubtedly a rich source of philosophical truth. One could read and contemplate the extensive writings from various school of Buddhism and walk away with deep insights on the meaning of life, ethics, psychology, human behavior, the nature of consciousness, politics and similarly "secular" disciplines. And there's a tendency, especially in the West, to limit the Buddha to his most basic teachings and limit Buddhism to a practical philosophy or lifestyle choice.
But in practice, especially the way it's been practiced in Asia for millennia, Buddhism is deeply religious. For starters, one of the goals of Buddhist thought and practice, like other mainstream religions, is "transcendence" or achieving a state of being beyond the self. Even if a Buddhist doesn't achieve nirvana in this lifetime, he or she hopes to experience greater detachment from selfish impulses and therefore less suffering [source: O'Brien].
Buddhism, like other religions, is also "mystical" in the sense that practitioners, through studying and meditation, can experience a direct communion with the divine or absolute. This is what Siddhartha Gautama experienced under the Bodhi Tree. The Buddha didn't "see God" in the Judeo-Christian sense, but he experienced a vision of the absolute truth of existence. And it's the promise of that same mystical revelation that Buddha extends to all who follow the dharma path.
Like other religions, Buddhism has its share of supernatural beliefs. Buddhist religious texts and folklore tell tales of the Buddha overpowering rivals by flying through the air and shooting fire from his head. Other monks and enlightened followers could travel instantly anywhere in the universe and pass freely into the heavenly realms [source: Buswell and Lopez].
But perhaps the most conventionally "religious" aspect of Buddhism in Western eyes is its preoccupation with the afterlife. While Buddhists don't believe in the traditional heaven and hell of Christianity, one of the central concerns of Buddhist practice has always been to ensure a better rebirth in the next life and to avoid the lowest realms [source: Buswell and Lopez]. And despite its reputation for promoting peace and tolerance, Buddhism doesn't balk from the common religious claim that its belief system is the only path to ultimate truth [source: Buswell and Lopez].
Do Buddhists Believe in God (or Gods)?
Buddhism does not support the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, singular God like the one worshipped in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But over the centuries, Buddhism developed an extensive cosmology of gods and demigods that populate its religious texts. And today, Buddhists across Asia appeal to various gods for protection, good crops, wealth and more [source: Jaffe].
In Buddhism, gods are called deva and live in a separate realm of existence consisting of 27 heavens or svarga [source: Buswell and Lopez]. The gods of the 27 heavens have nothing to do with the human realm. Stories about the gods appear in early Buddhist texts, but mostly serve as allegorical tales for teaching Buddhist principles [source: O'Brien].
Tantric Buddhism is the path most often equated with polytheism, because tantric practices often involve the invocation of a god or goddess associated with a certain spiritual power. Yet Tantric Buddhists don't perform these rituals to receive direct blessings from the gods like the ancient Romans, but rather to assist the practitioner in embodying the power and wisdom that the god represents.
Was the Buddha himself one of these gods? Some ancient Buddhist texts teach that the Buddha was a god before choosing to be being reborn as Siddhartha Gautama [source: Buswell and Lopez]. Gods in Buddhism aren't eternal or freed from the cycle of death and rebirth. That's what makes the Buddha so remarkable. He was the first among the gods or man to achieve nirvana and teach the path of enlightenment to both humans and deity.
How Does Karma Really Work?
The Western concept of karma usually means instant retribution for bad behavior. If you steal money from your elderly grandma to buy a new car and immediately get in a wreck, that's karma catching up with you.
In Buddhism, karma is the universal law of "morally valenced" cause and effect [source: Jaffe]. Karma, in Sanskrit, means "action." Each of our actions, whether good or bad, carries a consequence. Some of the consequences of our actions are felt in this lifetime, although perhaps not as dramatically as the car example above. And other actions trigger consequences that, thanks to the continual cycle of death and rebirth, will ripple across lifetimes.
The Buddha understood karma not only as action, but the intention behind the action. Good or "skillful" actions are motivated by compassion, generosity, sympathy, kindness and wisdom, while bad or "unskillful" actions are driven by hatred, greed and delusion [source: BBC]. That's why there's such a strong emphasis in Buddhist teaching on mindfulness. Only by being fully aware of our motivations can we condition ourselves to act only on our best intentions and let negative thoughts simply pass by.
The karmic effects of our actions fall into two categories: psychological and universal [source: Jones]. Since reincarnation or transmigration is often a difficult concept for modern man to grasp, Buddhists tend to focus on the psychological consequences of karma. Treating people with kindness and generosity has the effect of lifting our spirits, while acting out of greed and envy darkens our minds and mood. In that way, the law of karma can certainly impact us in the here and now.
Traditionally, though, Buddhists understand karma as the universal law that determines the form that transmigration will take. It's our actions and decisions, not the divine judgment of a cosmic being, that determine where will be born among the six realms or planes of existence. While Buddhists don't believe in an eternal "soul" or "I" that continues from one like to the next, they do believe that our "patterns of mind" persist beyond death [source: Goldstein]. According to the rules of karma, you will be reborn in the plane that best matches your pattern of mind.
Truly despicable intentions could land you in one of the lowest realms of suffering, while perfect mindfulness and compassion could qualify you for the heavenly planes, or at least being born into a wealthy family. The rest of us will be reborn as animals or imperfect humans trying our best to move up, or at least not down, the karmic ladder.
What Do We Get Wrong About Nirvana?
In English, the word nirvana describes an exalted state of blissed-out happiness. Taken that way, you might think that the Buddhist concept of nirvana is a lot like heaven, an eternal state of peace and contentment.
In Sanskrit, the word nirvana is translated as "extinguishing," "quenching" or "blowing out." But exactly what's being blown out? If the goal of Buddhism is to escape the cycle of life and death, then is it the soul that's being extinguished, never to be reborn again? Not really, because Buddhists don't believe in such a thing as the soul.
Instead, what's being extinguished by nirvana are the root causes of suffering (dukkha), namely greed, hatred and delusion [source: Keown]. If an individual can rid himself or herself of those wrongful desires, they enter a state of unmatched compassion, peace and joy known as nirvana. That's what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi Tree.
Or did he?
What's interesting is that the Buddha and some of his followers who achieved enlightenment weren't immediately extinguished from existence. The Buddha stuck around for 45 years teaching the path to liberation from suffering. If nirvana is the ultimate liberation from life and death, then how can a person who has achieved nirvana go on living?
That depends on who you ask. The two main branches of Buddhism are Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. In Theravada Buddhism, mainly practiced in Southeast Asia, they separate the terms enlightenment and nirvana. By following the dharma path, Theravada Buddhism teaches you can achieve an enlightened state on Earth, but true nirvana, called parinirvana, cannot be obtained until death. In the Theravada view, the Buddha achieved enlightenment after meditating for 40 days, but nirvana came later.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the school of Buddhism practiced in China, Tibet, Japan and Korea, there's an emphasis on the ideal of the advanced bodhisattva, a person who has achieved Buddha-like levels of enlightenment, but enters a "non-abiding" state of nirvana that allows them to return to the world to continue to help sentient beings [source: O'Brien].
Ultimately, all this talk of what is or isn't nirvana is kind of fruitless. The Buddha taught that nirvana is wholly unknowable, since it is a state beyond existence and non-existence. It is neither a place nor a state of mind, yet it is the ultimate spiritual destination that all Buddhists seek.
What's So Important About the Dalai Lama?
The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, which is a blend of Mahayana Buddhism and pre-Buddhist Tibetan religions. Among the unique beliefs of Tibetan Buddhism is that the Dalai Lama is an enlightened being or bodhisattva that has chosen to be reincarnated more than a dozen times over hundreds of years in order to teach the dharma to the world [source: The Dalai Lama].
In addition to being a spiritual giant, the Dalai Lama is also recognized as the political leader of Tibet. This role took on new meaning after communist China invaded Tibet in 1950 and brutally suppressed a Tibetan uprising in 1959, causing the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to flee into exile in India, where he remains [source: The Dalai Lama].
"Lama" is a Tibetan word for teacher, equivalent to the Sanskrit "guru." The word "dalai" is Mongol for "ocean," so the Dalai Lama is understood to be a teacher whose wisdom is as deep as the ocean [source: BBC]. Tibetans believe each Dalai Lama is a direct incarnation of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Successive incarnations of Chenrezig have been identified for 600 years, but the first individual to receive the title of Dalai Lama lived in the 17th century [source: The Dalai Lama].
Tenzin Gyatso is the 14th Dalai Lama and is beloved for his wisdom and compassion far beyond the exiled community of Tibetan Buddhists. Chosen by religious officials as the reincarnated leader at age 2, after he showed certain signs, the Dalai Lama was educated in Tibetan monasteries starting at age 6. Although briefly recognized by China as Tibet's rightful leader in the 1950s, he has served most of his seven decades as Dalai Lama in exile. His nonviolent quest for Tibet's freedom from Chinese occupation earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 [source: Nobel].
The Dalai Lama has written best-selling books translating Buddhist teachings of compassion and happiness for lay audiences, and travels the world speaking to people of all religious backgrounds about the blessings that come with cultivating a spirit of tolerance, forgiveness and self-discipline. In 2011, the Dalai Lama officially retired from political service and said that he wants the Tibetan people to decide if the next Dalai Lama should continue as political leader [source: The Dalai Lama].
Why Do Buddhists Meditate?
Many Buddhists, particularly in the West, take time every day to meditate. If the goal of Buddhism is to change our way of perceiving reality and rid ourselves of negative thoughts and desires, then the focus of Buddhist practice should be transforming the mind. Meditation, the Buddha taught, is one of the best tools for transforming the mind [source: The Buddhist Centre].
Meditation wasn't always central to Buddhist daily life. For millennia after the Buddha's death, meditation was considered an advanced practice exclusive to Buddhist monks. But starting in the 20th century, it was taught to laypeople as a means of cultivating mindfulness, clarity and compassion [source: Buswell and Lopez]. In much of Asia, meditation is still not widely practiced by Buddhists outside of monasteries.
Different schools of Buddhism take different approaches to meditation. In Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners try to re-create an image of the Buddha in their mind or silently repeat a mantra. In Theravada Buddhism, one common meditative practice (among many) is focusing on the breath and learning to observe passing thoughts and feelings with detachment [source: BBC].
While meditation is clearly beneficial for reducing stress and calming the body and mind, that's not the end goal for Buddhists. Achieving a calm mindfulness through meditation is just the first step. The real "work" of meditation is to then use that state of calm mindfulness to tackle the "hard questions" — why we cling to negative desires, why we believe in the permanence of reality, why we fight change, etc. [source: Gross].
Buddhists believe that the fruits of mindfulness meditation extend to the rest of daily life. The goal is to become more mindful of the body and mind throughout the school or work day, to be less rushed and more patient with yourself and others, to be more generous and to seek to do no harm. Buddhists may keep a small shrine in their home — perhaps a statue of the Buddha or a bodhisattva — as a reminder to think and live intentionally even while not meditating [source: Shasta Abbey].
Can Anyone Be a Buddhist Monk?
The short answer is yes. With the proper preparation and sense of commitment, anyone can take the vows of a Buddhist monk or nun and enter the walls of monastic life. But that doesn't mean that everybody should.
Although some monasteries offer part-time ordination, in most schools of Buddhism, the choice to become a Buddhist monk or nun is a lifetime commitment. Many Buddhists monks and nuns are celibate. They don't work or earn money outside of the monastery. They meditate and study all day long. On the plus side, no more agonizing over what to wear or how to style your hair. Monks and nuns shave their heads and wear simple robes every day.
Because it's a serious decision, Buddhist monasteries ensure that all prospective monks and nuns are fully prepared for the realities of monastic life. First, there's spiritual preparation. You can't show up the doors of a Buddhist monastery as an absolute newbie and expect to be handed a robe. It requires years of serious study and practice under a qualified teacher before one can even consider becoming ordained. Some monasteries require a year or more under some form of lay vows before seeking full ordination [source: IMI].
Then there are more practical preparations. Aspiring monks and nuns should be free of any "encumbering relationships" and have the permission and support of family members. They should also be free of debt and other financial obligations, because worldly jobs are forbidden once you're ordained [source: Nalanda Monastery].
Most monastic communities recommend that prospective monks and nuns spend progressively longer stretches of time at the monastery as volunteers and helpers before taking the vows. Many monasteries offer meditation retreats for a taste of monastic life. Aspiring monks and nuns are encouraged to help out at the monastery by cleaning or preparing meals while getting to know the monastic community and its daily rhythms.
Not all monasteries accept foreigners, but there are several well-known monastic communities in Asia, Europe and the United States that are welcoming to monks and nuns from all backgrounds.
Are All Buddhists Pacifist and Vegetarians?
In the West, some people tend to lump all Buddhists together into a homogenous group that's not entirely based in reality. Given the Buddha's teachings against harming any sentient creature, some people assume that all Buddhists are pacifists and vegetarians who would never hurt a fly, let alone a cow or an enemy soldier. But that's not the case.
The Buddha himself rejected the notion that his monks should be vegetarians, even though it seemed to go against the core Buddhist teaching of "do no harm" (ahimsa). Traditionally, monks ate only what was given to them by lay members of the community, a practice that continues in many Theravada Buddhist monasteries. The Buddha taught that giving generously to monks was a great way to earn karmic merit. And if a monk refused to take a donation of meat, he was essentially blocking the giver from receiving blessings and potentially messing with his next life [source: Buswell and Lopez].
For that reason, both Theravada monks and lay Theravada followers are still allowed to eat meat if they choose. The monks are instructed to eat everything they are given, because it's a karmic help to the lay people. And the lay people are taught that it's OK to eat meat that's already been killed, because letting it go to waste would mean the animal's death was in vain. Personally hunting and killing an animal is still prohibited [source: Liusuwan].
In Mahayana Buddhism, however, the call to "do no harm" is extended to all sentient beings and neither monks nor lay people eat meat [source: Jaffe]. So if you thought that all Buddhists were vegetarians, you were half right!.
Buddhism and warfare is a trickier topic. The Buddha absolutely taught that violence and killing had no place in Buddhism, even in times of war, and great spiritual figures like the Dalai Lama have embraced non-violent resistance as the most effective way to fight violent oppression [source: BBC]. But that doesn't mean that a war has never been waged in the name of Buddhism.
In the past century alone, Tibetan monks took up arms against Chinese invaders in the 1950s. Zen Buddhist monks in Japan supported the brutal Japanese invasion of China during World War II. And tragically, in 2013 Buddhists in Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Sri Lanka have committed atrocities against Muslim minorities in those countries, with one Burmese Buddhist monk comparing himself favorably to Osama bin Laden [source: Caryl].
Being human is complicated for people of all religious faiths. But just as no individual or religious group is perfect, all are deserving of forgiveness.
Learn more about Buddhism in "No-Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners: Clear Answers to Burning Questions About Core Buddhist Teachings" by Noah Rasheta. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.
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Author's Note: 10 Questions About Buddhism
As a religion major in college, you'd think I would know more about Buddhism, but apparently the info I learned in that Intro to Buddhism class I took 20-(cough) years ago wore off a while ago. Like many Americans, I find Buddhist teachings at once comforting and scary. I have no problem agreeing that life would be much easier if we could free ourselves from greed, hate and other wrong-headed desires. But I also don't think that I'm ready to be reborn a couple of thousand times. Whether or not this life was a reward for past skillful actions, I feel like I've been dealt a pretty good hand. One lifetime is plenty for me, thanks.
Special thanks to Richard Jaffe, associate professor of Religious Studies at Duke University and author of the forthcoming book, "Seeking Sakyamuni: South Asia in the Formation of Modern Japanese Buddhism."
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